"What do cats, dogs, and STEAM have in common?" The beginning of this blog will sound like a riddle or a complete stretch to find the connection between the three. Instead of answering the question directly, I am going about it the roundabout way. If you want to know the answer, forward to the last paragraph of the blog. Be forewarned that the answer may just melt your mind.

The inspiration for this post comes from the Atlanta BeltLine bus tour that the Lab Atlanta faculty took last Friday. More specifically, it's inspired by public art pieces--like the graffiti found in the Krog Street Tunnel. 

Depending on who you are and the lens you wear, public art pieces such as graffiti evoke a spectrum of feelings: from inspiration to disgust. Nonetheless, they make you feel. If you google images for the Krog street tunnel, you will see a wealth of images of people embracing the art and even adding performance pieces to the art.  

You can even argue that this art is a product of an articulated problem in the tunnel. Try to imagine the tunnel without the art: dark, cold, even dangerous.  Potentially a magnet for crime. Hypothetically, the articulated problem could have been "How can we make the tunnel safer for people to travel on foot?" Thus, graffiti artists created "a public" there, by designing an art gallery not only to practice their craft, to display their work, to brighten up the environment, but also to solve the problem of safety in the tunnel.

From a visual arts perspective this tunnel graffiti could be categorized as public art. Here is where it gets interesting. Dig a little deeper. What do you see? Wear a different lens; say you are a chemist. What do you see? What you might see are the chemical and material properties of the paint reflecting a rich saturation of color, depending on the wavelength of light absorbed. Go even deeper and you can talk about the electrons and the physical and chemical bonds they share. Wear another lens--say a historical lens--and you could talk about when the tunnel was constructed, how it was originally used, and how it is currently being used. Dig deeper and you can open up the discussion to the neighborhoods and how the nearby area is developing. Wear the lens of an author and look at each piece of graffiti to research the story it tells, the emotions they invoke. Lastly, wear the lens of an international tourist. Compare and contrast the graffiti from home to the graffiti in the tunnel. What does it reflect about culture, diversity, core values?

Was it the intention of each artist to make you wonder about the story, chemical composition, global connection, and history of the tunnel? If it was, this is a very elegant design to the articulated problem of making the tunnel safer. By drawing attention to an otherwise bland item, you have prompted city officials to add more lighting in the tunnel. By creating images provoking a response, you have increased the number of attentive eyes in the tunnels. By adding splashes of color, you brighten up the environment. Naturally we don’t wear all these lenses at the same time. We may carry two or three; but to see it all is quite difficult, arduous, and time consuming. So the question remains: who does that?

By having dialogues between unlikely partners such as engineers and artists, the user benefits. Think back to being a kid and taking apart a radio, a toaster, or mixing the paints to see what happens. Did you know all the elements that went into the design of the radio? Did you know how a toaster worked? Did you know what color you were making? Even more paramount was the interplay between your choice of materials in the deconstructed items and the science behind the paints. Knowing the science behind the paints makes you a better painter. You can thus paint in more mediums, reach brighter colors and broader gradients--even evoking more feelings. By knowing how to make a toaster easier to use, engineers can be more efficient in designing for a broader population. The essence of STEAM education is that you are utilizing each different lens to see and share what you see in order to be effective learners and teachers. It is a truly interdisciplinary approach: not only to dig deeper into your own understanding, but to make stronger connections in the hopes of eliciting a natural curiosity about the world around you.

If you didn’t care for the middle of this blog, you are at the end, so you will probably want to start here to find the answer to the riddle. It’s a common saying that dogs and cats don’t get along. They are two different species with different traits and behaviors: very unlikely partners. STEM education serves as the bridge for likely partnerships between disciplines that are understood to connect. By simply adding an “A” (for "Arts") into the mix, you open up a new world incorporating partnerships between perspectives that wouldn’t naturally overlap: engineers and artists, authors and scientists, sociologists and biologists. These unlikely partnerships of dogs and cats are what we are building at Lab Atlanta, using principles in STEAM education to leverage all disciplines, so that our students not only hone and improve their crafts, but wear multiple lenses to reinvigorate their natural curiosity about the world.

Karl Hwang, Lab Atlanta faculty